When you’ve put a lot of time and care into crafting the perfect character for your story, it can be difficult to give them any trait that could be classified as a “flaw.” After all, you want people to like them, and giving them a morally dubious, gross, or selfish quirk could damage readers’ perceptions of them. However, nobody is perfect. Giving characters flaws is not only important for developing them realistically, but it can also play a large part in story progression and reader engagement.
It is important to remember that a character’s flaws are not errors, but deliberate choices to add conflict or suspense to a story. It can be difficult to overcome the urge to make your characters “perfect” out of fear of making them unlikable. But there are ways to successfully implement flaws into a character’s personality and lifestyle without damaging their reputation, and can, in fact, make them seem more endearing and easy to sympathize with. With a little careful planning, you can create iconic characters and memorable storylines by utilizing a character’s less admirable qualities to your advantage.
What is a Character Flaw?
To put it simply, a character flaw is a personality trait that either makes a character’s life more difficult or negatively impacts their relationships with other characters. This can come in many different forms, but some of the most common categories are:
- Phobias and fears
- Mental conditions
- Vices and addiction
- Misguided morals or beliefs
- Mental or emotional shortcomings
In other words, a character flaw is an undesirable personality trait that poses unique challenges for the character, that wouldn’t necessarily affect another character the same way.
Although someone may not consider something like a thirst for adventure as a character flaw, it can be if that trait leads to the character making questionable decisions to satisfy that thirst. That could mean the character feels compelled to trespass often, or even hitchhike across the continent with less-than-trustworthy drivers. They might not consider it a flaw, but it is since it can still get them into a lot of trouble.
As another example, someone struggling with anger issues will occasionally struggle to just get through the day. In comparison, a character without anger issues wouldn’t even think twice about things that could send the angry person over the edge.
For more information about anger issues specifically, check out my article: “Writing a Character with Anger Issues.”
A word of caution before you commit to giving your character a mental illness like anger issues or depression as a character flaw: be careful not to romanticize the condition. Remember that flaws should create conflict in the story, and make the character’s life more difficult. If you do not represent their mental illness accurately, it will make the character seem fake and unrealistic. Depression poses a significant challenge to those that suffer from it, and the same is true for many other mental illnesses. If you can’t convey that, you need to reevaluate how you’ve developed your character.
Why Are Character Flaws Important in Fiction?
Character flaws are a tremendously important aspect of character creation and development, and there are many reasons why. It makes the story interesting, and it helps readers form a connection with the main characters.
When a character is created without any deliberate flaws, they tend to become perfect, or even “godlike” depending on the story. When this is the case, readers get really good at predicting the outcome of the story. If a character never makes a mistake, then there is never any tension because the readers know that things will turn out okay. Additionally, without flaws, there is no complexity to the character or story, so you don’t give your readers much to think about.
When a character is given a more complex and flawed personality, suddenly, readers aren’t going to be so confident about the outcome of the story. The character might not make the obvious choice and instead could make a choice that reflects their personal flaws. They might avoid an important event because of their severe introversion, or they could inadvertently harm someone else to protect their own life. They could make a morally wrong decision in the name of fortune or fame. These unexpected events are what drive a story and create good tension, conflict, and progression. In many cases, it is a character’s flaws that start the narrative in the first place. Without flaws, a story goes stagnate.
In addition to making a more interesting narrative, creating complex flaws and well-rounded personalities for your characters will bring them to life, and make your readers remember them long after they read the last line of your story. This is true for villains too. If you give characters motivations and beliefs that are flawed, you can justify more questionable behavior. If a character had lost her family, then she could be forgiven for acting cold and defensive to emotionally protect herself from getting attached to people again. If a villain takes the lives of millions of people in an effort to protect someone he loves, then he becomes sympathetic. That doesn’t make him a good person, but readers will be able to relate more to his struggle, especially if he acknowledges that his behavior is wrong.
In short, flaws are important in fiction to make the story worth reading. You can create an interesting narrative with deep implications that will make your readers think about life in a new way. You can create characters that can be people’s favorites, and tell a story that people can relate to emotionally—even if it’s about dragons and wizards.
Different Flaws for Different Characters
Giving characters believable flaws isn’t as easy as just rolling dice and sticking some random traits on them. In order to make a character feel authentic, you need to craft their faults carefully based on the type of character they are, and what you want them to be. Characters should be unique, and if you’ve done your job well up to this point, then they should already have a decently fleshed-out backstory. Use that to give them flaws that make sense for their character, so they don’t behave in inconsistent ways.
You really need to know your characters well before you can give them reasonable flaws. If you need to develop your characters more before you move on, you can hop over to my other article: How to Make Characters Interesting, Complex, and Unique.
Flaws are an important aspect of personality, and they develop in a lot of the same ways as normal traits. The same situation that has a positive effect on one type of character could have a negative impact on another, so siblings that grew up in the same environment could develop different reactions to their situation. One may become defensive and closed off, while the other flourishes. It depends on the character, their environment, and their particular way of thinking.
Backstory is inarguably the single most important deciding factor involved in how a character turns out. You’ve seen it a thousand times. A character experiences a traumatic experience as a child and withdraws from others as a result. Another character loses her husband in a zombie outbreak and becomes a deadly soldier to avenge him. Another character was encouraged too much as a child and grew up to be an arrogant model or businessman.
The point is that past experiences drive future decisions. If you want to find reasonable faults for a character that already exists, all you need to do is look to their past to get ideas. What was their childhood like? Where were they raised? What’s their relationship with their parents? Did they move at some point? Many times? What are the notable events that happened in their past? What stands out?
Try to find the moments that would impact your character the most, and use that to justify the development of their personal flaws. If a character moved to different cities several times as a child, then they may be more desperate to make friends as an adult and could end up in bad company. If they had a bad relationship with their parents growing up, then they could develop trust issues. Exposure to drugs and alcohol as a child could lead to the character developing a dependence when they get older.
If you’ve identified an important event but you aren’t sure how the flaws would manifest, then try doing some research on psychological responses to different situations, such as abuse, trauma, praise, or whatever is relevant. You could end up finding some great ideas you never would have thought of otherwise.
A character’s values also derive in part from their backstory, but they are important enough to bring up separately. The things that your character believes in, and the things that they see as important or morally right, should have a huge impact on how they navigate through life.
Flaws can take the form of a misguided belief, such as racism or sexism. Sometimes, it has religious origins, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. The value could also be wealth, or the belief that everything in life will be okay if success can be achieved. However, some of the most interesting types of flaws are those that erupt from a failure of conscience.
A failure of conscience describes a value that is taken too far to be reasonable. Characters get so caught up in their cause, that the methods they use to achieve their goals no longer matter. For example, a person that wants to find a cure for a disease that could save millions might begin experimenting on other people, thinking that the small sacrifice is justified by the huge number of lives that could be saved. Their heart is in the right place, but they aim for a solution that is morally disastrous. Adherence to a belief taken several steps too far is one of the best types of flaws since it consistently results in realistic depth and emotional conflict.
Like with values, a character’s level of education is going to be dependent on their backstory, and the opportunities they had available to them as they were growing up. Flaws can be tied to how intelligent or ignorant a character is about certain topics. A lack of cultural understanding could easily result in a hostile attitude towards people from different countries, as an example.
Alternatively, a particularly intelligent character may be arrogant and pretentious, which could result in tension between them and their loved ones. Being intelligent isn’t inherently a flaw, obviously, but any trait can have additional consequences that result from them. Other consequences of high intelligence that could be considered flaws are a lack of confidence, a sense of dissatisfaction, poor social skills, or classism.
Take into consideration the things your character does and does not understand, and use that to your advantage when creating their flaws. Their traits might not be flaws in themselves, but anything can cause harmful behaviors or ideas to develop.
Root Causes and Consequences
One of the biggest problems writers encounter when creating flaws for characters is that the flaws have too large of a scope. It’s easy to say that a character is an alcoholic, and yes, that is technically a flaw. However, that alone isn’t what creates problems in the story. Alcoholism is a root cause, because it results in many other smaller problems, such as a lack of self control, anger, and health problems. Those smaller flaws that result from a major problem is where the real character development can begin.
This is a great strategy for creating a network of believable flaws and traits to make a character more three-dimensional. If you start with a big-picture flaw, such as anxiety, that gives you a lot to work with. Because anxiety manifests in so many different ways, you have a large pool of potential minor flaws to pick from to support that major flaw of anxiety. Some minor flaw examples for anxiety could be insomnia, fear of public speaking, lack of social skills, or any phobia. If you think you have a good character flaw picked out, try to see if you can go deeper. Find all the ways that it could influence your character, and work with that to build out a network of flaws that result from one or two root causes.
The Character’s Perception
An important aspect of character flaws to keep in mind is the character’s own perception of them. Are they aware of them, or do they think there’s nothing wrong with their behavior? Do they struggle to live with or overcome their flaws on a daily basis? Do they want to get better, or are they content living the way that they do?
Consider a character who smokes. How he thinks about his bad habit could alter the progression of his story pretty significantly. If he doesn’t believe he’s actually hurting himself, he’s not likely to stop. If he develops a cough, he might be more willing to try to stop, but depending on his situation and personal willpower he might still be unable to.
Although that knowledge of how his behavior is hurting him doesn’t change the outcome, it does do something interesting for the story by creating inner conflict. When a character understands that their behavior is wrong, and still won’t or can’t stop, then they become more dynamic. This character has suddenly become someone that readers can cheer on, or be kept in suspense about whether or not he’ll be able to resist giving in to his vice.
That example isn’t to show that internal conflict is the only was to utilize a character’s perspective. You can create just as much interest with an oblivious character. If someone doesn’t even have a clue that they are doing something wrong, it can be more difficult for the character to change the behavior and evolve. It can continue to create tension or conflict with other characters, and lead up to a rather dramatic event to take the character by surprise as a result.
However you choose to control a character’s perception of their problems, try to use that to carry your story a step beyond the expected. Conflict can be a wonderful way of giving your story suspense, and flaws are the perfect way to encourage that.
A character’s perception of their flaws (or lack thereof) is a good way of developing a villain. If you want help with making complex, interesting villains, take a look at my other article: How to Write Good Villains in Fiction.
How to Avoid Going Overboard
A word of caution when dealing with more repulsive flaws: the gray area between acceptable and completely abhorrent is not very large. You can push the boundaries too far, and make your character unforgivable no matter how many other good traits you try to balance them out with.
If you want to try to make a really terrible fault work, like if your main character is really the villain, or for whatever motivation you could have, there are still some tactics you can employ to make them sympathetic despite their flaws. The easiest way to do that is to show the readers how that character thinks. How do they see the world? What are their motivations? Using sound logic or traumatic pasts to explain a character’s behavior is usually enough to keep them on track to still being acceptable. However, not only can a main character not come back from something truly terrible, you may actually end up inadvertently romanticizing criminal behaviors—so tread carefully.
Villains are an exception to this rule, of course. If you want to make a morally repugnant villain, then go ahead. They are supposed to be the bad guy. However, even if they are intended to be the most revolting, greedy, abusive monster ever, still try to give them a tiny glimpse of humanity. Give them some shred of goodness, however small, to give readers a moment of pause. After all, no human is purely evil.
Remember, if you don’t like your own character, you can’t expect anyone else to like them either. And if a reader doesn’t like the main character or cast, then chances are, they won’t ever read past chapter one. If in doubt, ask yourself: if someone you knew did the things your character did, would that still be forgivable? If the answer is no, then you might want to dial it back.